Monday, September 17, 2012

150 Years Since Antietam

If anything should have turned Americans into hard core pacifists, it should have been the horrible carnage of the Civil War.  Battle after battle where the tactics of lining up to advance across a clearing into the enemy had not kept up with the technology of faster and more accurate firepower, leaving tens of thousands dead or horribly wounded, should have taken all the glamour out of combat.  The fact that merely camping out with thousands of other soldiers under 1860s conditions could also mean likely catching a deadly disease would be just icing on the cake.  It's no wonder that we avoided major wars for almost forty years after that mess, and even then picked a weak enemy like Spain.

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the bloodiest day of that war--the Battle of Antietam, Maryland.  Over 23,000 killed, out of 131,000 engaged--giving a soldier in that battle about a one in six chance of perishing there.  And even after that horrible day, there'd be a few more years of war and a lot more young lives lost.  All pretty much to teach the South a lesson--when the state of South Carolina leads the way, don't follow!

The blood of Antietam was a high price but helped a great deal in ending the war.  General Lee's first advance into the North was checked, and his strength sapped--giving Lincoln enough cred to call it a victory and issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which discouraged a number of foreign governments from providing aid to the Confederacy.  It also meant that winning the war was not just a matter of keeping the states together, but ending slavery.

But what still stands out for me about that battle--as well as the entire war itself--is how easily the expectations of a short, relatively bloodless victory can be dashed when an enemy was underestimated.  And clearly both sides underestimated the other here--Northerners figured the rebels would be put down within months with a swift march on Richmond and the rebel forces would scatter; Southerners figured once the Union's nose was bloodied they'd be allowed to secede without further trouble.  The foolishness of glorifying war without expecting the unexpected is a lesson we should all carry with us--particularly in these days of pundits and politicians calling for strikes on Iran--and the field of Antietam is the best example of this.

No comments:

Post a Comment