Through Maryland’s green and rolling meadows, a stream the color of chocolate winds on its unhurried way to the Potomac River. Blown by summer breezes, cirrus clouds coast across the blue sky, trailing their shadows like the tails of kites across the tasseled corn. In this pastoral landscape, a battlefield seems out of place. One autumn day in 1862, the clash of musketry and cannon fire erupted in the normally languid air near Antietam Creek. By sunset, 23,000 young Americans had fallen in these fields. A literary Union soldier later wrote that the ground near Antietam Creek reminded him of Goethe’s phrase: a landscape turned red.
Spending lazy summer afternoons immersed in Bruce Catton’s Civil War histories, I had first become acquainted with the battle of Antietam. His lyrical language and deft touch with anecdotes appealed to a young boy’s imagination—I can still picture the Shenandoah Valley through his word images.
In all the years since reading Catton’s history, I had never toured the Antietam battleground. While on a visit to the nation’s capital, I decided the time to visit had arrived. After checking into a motel in nearby Hagerstown, I drove the dozen miles to Antietam, an August sun slanting across the maize and meadows. As I parked the car, a famous battlefield landmark, the bleached white Dunker Church, caught my attention. History, for that moment, stepped off the pages of a book and took on tangible form.
Inside the interpretive center, a sandy-haired woman in tan uniform smiled and welcomed me to the park, her voice pleasantly shaded with just the hint of a Southern drawl.
The park rangers have acquired an encyclopedic knowledge; each regiment’s story, it seems, is preserved in fine detail, awaiting only a tourist’s inquiry to spring back to life.
When I posed a question about the Iron Brigade, she hesitated a moment before saying, “This calls for an expert. Jack knows Hooker’s corps better than anybody.” Turning toward another ranger, she said, “Jack, this Yankee wants to know about the Black Hats
Looking up from his reading, a rotund and mustachioed man extended his hand to me. “Hi. I’m Jack. How are you today? The Iron Brigade, you say…” he adjusted his glasses. “Well, let’s take a look at the map on that table.”
As we strolled across the room, he warmed to his subject: “Now, at Antietam they weren’t yet known as the Iron Brigade. Just two days previous, they had fought at South Mountain. Over there.” He pointed out the window to a distant wooded ridge. “They earned their name in that fighting, but it hadn’t stuck yet.” Turning to the map table, he hunched over: “Anyway the Iron Brigade’s down here, north of the Cornfield.” A pudgy finger stabbed the map. “The 2nd and 6th Wisconsin are on this side of the Hagerstown pike and…”
I remembered from Catton’s history that the Iron Brigade had earned its second red badge of courage at South Mountain, facing D.H. Hill’s crack Confederate troops. The first had come in the fields of Brawner’s Farm at Second Manassas. “That brigade must be made of iron,” the awed Union commanding general had declared, as he watched the Brigade advance into a withering fire.
After several more questions and detailed answers, my conversation with Jack wound to a conclusion, leaving me marveling at his recall. I strolled outside to where a trio of cannon stood silently on a hilltop. Antietam had been known as Artillery Hell. The ground before me spilled away in gentle hollows and swells. On one knoll rested the Dunker Church, shining white in the green landscape. The devout congregation had believed that a steeple was a vanity and war a moral offense.
As dawn had approached on that autumn day in 1862, The Iron Brigade dressed ranks north of The Cornfield. They waited in the morning mist; as veterans, they surely anticipated the horrific trial by fire that awaited them. The regimental accounts do not say whether a young captain walked the lines, imparting courage by his presence. Without a doubt, leaders were many. Some may have been officers, others enlisted men. They hailed from Northwestern farms and towns: Fond du Lac, or Madison, perhaps Monroe. Neighbors probably rated them solid citizens, but common folks. They plowed fields or shod horses. They courted sweethearts or raised children. Perhaps a few had been community stalwarts, a lawyer possibly, stumping for votes on election day. In autumn, 1862, they proved to be of the kind of mettle that is forged into legend. A veteran remarked that everyone who stood before The Cornfield on that morning was a hero.
Early in the day, the Indiana and Wisconsin men swept forward. Despite their heroism, they never reached the high ground near the Dunker Church. In the Odyssey, the vengeful gods bar the hero’s path. Here, the Brigade’s foes were men who matched their valor, the justly famous division of General Hood. With a murderous fire, the Texans drove back the Iron Brigade.
After the battle, Union General “Fighting Joe” Hooker surveyed the Cornfield. The intense cannon and musket fire had cut the stalks as neatly as if by a knife, Hooker reported. Recalling Hooker’s image, I paused at a plaque honoring the Iron Brigade. While reading the memorial, I let the enormity of their valor and their sacrifice sink in.
Antietam is a compact battlefield when compared to the expansive layout at Chattanooga or Gettysburg. Sloping gently, a short path leads uphill from the Cornfield to the Dunker Church. Then, a few hundred yards downhill walk reaches the Sunken Road. Heavy wagon wheels had long ago worn this path below ground level. A natural trench was created; on that September day in 1862, it was packed with gray-clad soldiers. With the exhausted troops stalemated at the Cornfield, the battle’s pendulum swung here.
Desperate combat flared at the Sunken Road. Rebel muskets discharged sheets of flame into the advancing Union lines, yet new ranks of blue appeared from over the crest. Assisted by the fog of war, the Union troops eventually prevailed, flanking the Confederates and pouring a deadly enfilade fire down the Sunken Road.
Now you can walk this short road, with gravel crunching under your shoes. The surrounding farm fields are a luxuriant green. The stillness is broken only by insects humming and a light breeze rustling through the grass.
Details will fade from memory, yet the essential remains. Near the Sunken Road, stands a simple gray marker, a silent sentinel watching in the dusk. Etched in the stone is a name: the Irish Brigade. Its emerald green flag waved before the Sunken Road. The monument lists this famous Union group’s battles, and the commanders’ names, and the number of men lost in combat. In addition, this sentence: “In the Irish Brigade were 11 men who were awarded the Medal of Honor.”
Some have described Antietam as a futile standoff, since a decisive advantage eluded blue and gray. When history changes direction, there is not always a beacon. Shortly after Antietam, Lincoln could see victory enough to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. No longer was the war fought solely to preserve the Union. As Lincoln might have phrased it, slavery was on the road to extinction.
The path led, the following autumn, to a Pennsylvania cemetery. There on a ridge overlooking neatly tended farms, the President acknowledged the nation’s debt. On Gettysburg’s hallowed ground, he said, brave men (including notably the soldiers of the Iron Brigade) had given their last full measure of devotion so that nation might live.
Lincoln was not to see this march through. The Iron Brigade’s 24th Michigan regiment, appropriately, guarded his funeral procession. They had given so much at Gettysburg to purchase a new birth of freedom.
The Declaration of Independence inspired all his political sentiments, Lincoln once said. His bedrock beliefs became the nation’s pledge. The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, in 1867, promised every American “the equal protection of the law.”
At Antietam, as at so many historical junctures, ordinary Americans displayed extraordinary courage and commitment. Inspired and guided by an exceptional leader, they contributed to the creation of a democratic society. Though perhaps without so intending, this was the cause that those who fought at Antietam so nobly advanced.
From the Irish Brigade memorial, it is but a short distance to dilatory Antietam Creek. Further downstream, the national cemetery provides a final resting place for many of Antietam’s fallen. Beyond the chocolate-colored creek, verdant fields give way to South Mountain, now deep blue in the gathering dusk.