Nearly 10 years ago I spent a summer's day in rural Maryland. As a Civil War buff it was only natural to eventually find myself in Sharpsburg, where, on September 17, 1862, the mighty armies of Robert E. Lee and George B. McClellan tore into one another and fought all day to a terrible tactical draw. There, where Antietam Creek now flows scenic and serene through forest and well-tended farm fields, passed the bloodiest day in American history. There, in the short span between daylight and dusk, the blue and gray legions of North and South together amassed nearly 25,000 casualties.
Many thoughts and feelings gripped me as I stood and viewed the Antietam battlefield at each strategic point along the long-ago battle lines. There was the cold, emotionless objectivity of the Civil War history student as I replayed in my head the strategies and tactics of the audacious Lee and the reluctant McClellan. In my mind I envisioned the troop movements, the command mistakes, the missed military opportunities; all recalled from books perused in libraries and detached, heartless cubicles.
I was not surprised when calculating objectivity faded and misting eyes clouded my vision. It always happens sooner or later. I've cried on Civil War battlefields from Vicksburg to Gettysburg to Chickamauga. Perhaps, though, given the vastness of the human tragedy on this bloody stage, I wept harder at Sharpsburg.
There I stood in the Dunker churchyard and looked toward the cornfield where Stonewall Jackson and "Fighting Joe" Hooker did early morning battle. It was there that Confederate General John Bell Hood later pronounced his hard-fighting division "dead on the field." There, according to Hooker, like the corn, "the slain lay in rows."
From a well-placed observation tower I surveyed "Bloody Lane", the sunken road from which Rebel troops under John B. Gordon held off a vicious midday attack on the Confederate center. Afterward, the bodies lay in heaps, dead man atop dead man, like haphazardly stacked cordwood.
From a bluff above Antietam Creek, I observed the bridge over which Ambrose Burnside's soldiers marched, impeded from the adjacent heights by 400 Georgia sharpshooters commanded by Robert Toombs. It was there, toward the end of the day, that A.P. Hill's fabled "Light Division" arrived from Harpers Ferry, just in time to save Lee's right flank and the Army of Northern Virginia from utter defeat.
With a historian's eye, a poet's soul and a Southerner's heart I walked these grounds and relived their horrendous past. To do otherwise was impossible.
But there was something else there, too, something ages old, something for which one day of wanton 19th-Century slaughter was but a brief interruption; an unending constancy unchecked and unchanged by images of ravaging battle. It was, and is, a hopeful thing, even as we continue waging war, if not on each other, on the good earth.
At Dunker Church, where Jackson stood firm, I watched three blacksnakes emerge from beneath the roots of an oak tree to bask peacefully in the morning sunshine, oblivious to the passage of time and taking no account of what once happened here. The sleek reptiles showed no hostility toward me or each other, asking only to be left alone.
Near Bloody lane, I was drawn to a wisp of straw protruding from a cannon's muzzle. It is the site of a Confederate artillery battery, in 1862 a place of demonic noise and destruction. The nesting Carolina wrens I found there knew nothing of that.
From "Burnside Bridge," I gazed into Antietam Creek, flowing languidly and inexorably toward the Potomac, a journey its waters have made for millennia. Two feeding trout faced upstream in the gentle current, breaking ranks occasionally to snatch a floating insect from the surface, fish whose ancestors once fled from the harried onslaught of blue-clad infantry.
It is strange, perhaps, given all I saw and felt that summer's day, that I bore witness to these age-old natural rites and could not help smiling.
Nature heals, does it not?
Even in unlikely places.
Questions? Comments? E-mail Bob Kornegay at firstname.lastname@example.org