It’s said that Winston Churchill, on a side trip to Frederick, Md. in 1943 after visiting the presidential retreat now known as Camp David, recited from memory all 30 couplets of John Greenleaf Whittier’s patriotic poem “Barbara Frietchie.” I used to enjoy reading it to my kids:
Up from the meadows rich with corn
Clear in the cool September morn
The clustered spires of Frederick stand
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.
Round about them orchards sweep,
Apple and peach tree fruited deep,
Fair as the garden of the Lord
To the eyes of the famished rebel horde,
On that pleasant morn of the early fall
When Lee marched over the mountain-wall;
Over the mountains winding down,
Horse and foot, into Frederick town. ...
That particular cool September happened to be in 1862. And Whittier, setting to verse the tale of the elderly woman who defied Confederate troops with her display of the Stars and Stripes – the woman was real, even if the incident wasn’t – evoked what was in a sense a prelude to one of the Civil War’s most fateful encounters, the Battle of Antietam, which took place 150 years ago tomorrow.
The Confederate invasion of Maryland under Gen. Robert E. Lee came to a climax with that battle, across the Blue Ridge from Frederick near the village of Sharpsburg. Antietam, as the clash came to be known in the North and to history, refers to a creek that flows to the nearby Potomac River. Sharpsburg was the name memorialized in the South.
Both names would loom large, as Sept. 17, 1862 became the bloodiest single day of combat ever for Americans.
The toll in a half-dozen other Civil War battles over multiple days, topped by Gettysburg and Chickamauga, was greater. But in the violent, one-day storm that was Antietam, the casualty count including killed, wounded and missing on both sides was about 22,720. (The National Park Service, which oversees the battlefield today, says an exact figure can’t be ascertained.)
Some 2,100 Union troops died, along with 1,550 Confederates – among them the men whose bodies are seen in iconic, ghastly photos strewn down what became known as Bloody Lane. And many of those men were North Carolinians.
An account of the Tar Heels’ ordeal is found in “The Antietam Campaign,” edited by Gary W. Gallagher (UNC Press, 1999). High rank was not respected: Amid the carnage, Brig. Gen. George Burgwyn Anderson, commanding a North Carolina brigade in the division of Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill (father of the educator for whom N.C. State’s library is named), was shot in the ankle and evacuated from the field. The wound failed to heal. It was not until Anderson had made his arduous way back to his family in Raleigh that a doctor discovered an embedded bullet. The infection was fatal.
In the heat of battle, Anderson’s command passed to Col. Charles Courtenay Tew of Hillsborough. No sooner did Tew doff his hat to acknowledge his new role than he was shot through the temples. Lying in the lane, he lived just long enough to try to resist when federal troops later scavenged his sword.
Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the army that marched through Frederick en route to the Battle of South Mountain and then Antietam, had been on a roll. Repelling the Union force, led by Gen. George McClellan, that seemed destined to capture Richmond earlier that year, Lee headed northward.
The Second Battle of Manassas, at the end of August, was a Confederate triumph within hailing distance of Washington. Lee sought to maintain the advantage by taking the fight into Union territory. Besides, his hungry thousands could forage among the rich Maryland farms at harvest time.
The task of blunting the invasion – and, President Lincoln hoped, destroying the invaders – fell to McClellan. But even when a copy of Lee’s plans fell into Union hands, showing how the rebel forces would be deployed, the hyper-cautious McClellan failed to capitalize.
The Battle of Antietam went down as a tactical victory for the North because Lee decided to withdraw. There was no effective pursuit by the Federals, allowing Lee in the coming weeks to position his army between Washington and Richmond. That was the last straw for Lincoln, who gave McClellan the hook. “He has got the slows,” the president said.
Still, the repulse delivered under McClellan emboldened Lincoln to announce that as of Jan. 1, slaves in any Southern states that failed to rejoin the Union would be freed. So the Emancipation Proclamation flowered from Antietam’s blood-soaked ground.
Whittier’s famous poem turns on Barbara Frietchie’s challenge to none other than Stonewall Jackson:
“Shoot if you must this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said.
Swayed by her loyalty and courage, Jackson orders his men to march on. A brutal reckoning awaited, on a clear September day amid Maryland’s meadows rich with corn.
Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at email@example.com.