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A Yankee Notebook

April 13, 2015


SHARPSBURG, MD – It’s a raw and windy day here in the angle between Antietam Creek and the Potomac River. At three o’clock the rangers at the National Battlefield Headquarters on the grassy rise commanding a view of the field will ring bells commemorating the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War on this date at Appomatox Courthouse. There’ll be speeches, I suppose, but we won’t be there for them. We’ll be touring the battlefield slowly, stopping wherever we’re directed to by the somber voice on the recording in the dashboard.

Antietam, the Federals called the battle; the Confederates, Sharpsburg. It was the bloodiest single day of a war that destroyed over half a million lives between Fort Sumter and Appomatox. The two armies slashed at each other here like wild animals. The obvious goal of each was to annihilate the other. Neither succeeded; but 23,000 casualties in one day is an awful start. The generals, as generals will, were fighting the wars of the past – in this case, the Napoleonic Wars: massed infantry, shoulder to shoulder, marching resolutely to engage the enemy’s lines. The artillery, however, had outpaced that strategy, and tore great holes in those regimented ranks.

Ironically, the battlefield surrounded a small white building called the Dunker Church. Dunkers were Anabaptists, Old German Baptist Brethren. My mother was one. The nickname comes from their practice of adult baptism by triple immersion. They were pacifists, opposed, like the Quakers and Mennonites, to warfare; thus the irony that their simple chapel lay at the eye of this unbelievably violent storm.

Mother and I will load up the car tomorrow and head off on a life-and-death battle of our own: Interstate 81 north toward Binghamton, New York. It’s probably a lot safer – and certainly a lot faster – than the old Route 11 of our youth that it replaced; but at an average speed of 75 in heavy traffic and occasional fog, it sure doesn’t feel much safer.

Our first destination on any trip down this way is almost invariably Gettysburg. A quiet little country market town till the great three-day battle transformed it into a memorial and tourist attraction, it provides a crowded, noisy counterpoint to the quiet gravity of the battlefield itself. After several trips here, we’re finally beginning to grasp pretty much where, when, and why the events of the battle unfolded as they did: Buford delaying the Confederate vanguard until Reynolds arrived; the forced Federal fallback through the village to the high ground beyond; Euell’s assessment that clearing the high ground of blue-clad troops was not “practicable”; Longstreet’s futile objections to any frontal assaults; Chamberlain’s defense of Little Round Top. The list goes on, and though the outcome, in hindsight, seems foredoomed after the first day, it’s still a fascinating study in tactics, terrain, and, most of all, personalities.

We drive south along the location of the long-ago Confederate lines on Seminary Ridge, pausing at the Virginia Memorial, a huge block of stone with a mounted Robert E. Lee atop it, facing the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Mother drops me off, and I head out on the route of Pickett’s Charge, toward the cannon I can see facing me a little less than a mile away. She drives around the Peach Orchard and the Wheatfield, past Devils Den and Little Round Top, and meets me at the grove of trees that General Lee chose as the focus of the Confederate attack on Day 3, and beside the memorial to General Armstead, whose men very briefly pierced the Union line that day.

Then it was off to Shenandoah National Park and the Skyline Drive, where we stayed in a quiet cabin beside a brook and I got to watch a pileated woodpecker for a couple of hours. Next day, at a spot where the Appalachian Trail crosses the Drive, Mother dropped me off again, and like the Energizer bunny I hiked a few lovely miles to the next crossing. I couldn’t help reflecting as I hiked that I’d been over that exact trail just sixty years ago – but moving a whole lot faster then.

“Over 160 battles were fought in Culpeper County during the Civil War. Throughout continued occupation by one side or the other, trees were felled and used for shelter and firewood, food stores and housing were commandeered by whichever side was in charge at the time.” So runs the introduction to a brochure titled “A Driving Tour of Civil War Culpeper.” Towns with railroad junctions, like Culpeper, were strategic targets and much coveted, both for convenience and for denying the enemy the convenience. Its hard to believe how bitterly this county was contested.

I’m looking at a map of Virginia. The two capital cities of the Civil War belligerents were only 100 miles apart, and the battlefields, from Manassas to the Shenandoah Valley, are within relatively easy range of marching infantry. Even with active cavalry, the state was too small for armies to avoid or surprise each other very often. You wonder: “What were they thinking?”

It’s probable no one thought the war would last more than a couple of months at most – sort of a gentleman’s dispute that could be settled with a treaty agreeing to the South’s demands to be left alone to pursue its own course – one that, historically, was on the way out, anyway. Slavery was becoming an anachronism, and an economic liability, besides. But apparently no one reckoned with the resolve of President Lincoln and the antislavery party; and for the first two years of the war, at least, the South overestimated the strength of antiwar sentiment in the North.

In a few more hours we two Yankees will leave these once-ghastly fields and retreat to a state where the tourists come to view orange leaves and steaming sap houses. But we’ll be back.

Photo by Willem lange